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Campaign US: Startup Spotlight – Why We Are Rosie put diversity at its core

by | Nov 24, 2020

Originally posted on Campaign US by Alison Weissbrot, November 24, 2020.

Before COVID-19 and the events of 2020 accelerated the shift to freelance work and exposed systemic racism, Stephanie Nadi Olson was onto both trends.

She launched We Are Rosie in 2018 as a freelance network of more than 6,000 independent marketing talent largely from underrepresented backgrounds who could help agencies and brands staff up on flexible talent.

Launching her own business was a gamble. With the support of her husband, she quit her career in ad sales — cutting the family’s income by about 80% — shortly after having her second child.

But as the daughter of a Palenstinian immigrant who grew up in a refugee camp, Olson had always felt drawn to helping marginalized groups. “This business was inspired by my background growing up in a mixed-race and mixed-religion household,” she said.

Because of that, We Are Rosie is diverse by design. In 2019, 42% of people put on projects through the platform identified as Black or people of color — without a company diversity mandate. We Are Rosie has committed publicly to keeping that number above 40%.

“I’ve heavily relied on underrepresented people to scale this business, as they are the ones who get it fastest,” Olson said.

We Are Rosie has also touched a nerve in the post-COVID workforce, where scores of agency and marketing talent have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. The company recently launched a six month trial-to-hire program called Rosie Recruits.

“This is our way to get people back in the workforce and give people the opportunity to try an employer as much as the employer tries them,” Olson said.

In addition to staffing at 45 agencies, We Are Rosie has signed enterprise partnerships with 20 Fortune 500 brands. The business is set to grow up to 130% this year, Olson said.

She spoke with Campaign US about the challenges of starting her company and much more.

Campaign US: What motivated you to start your own business?
Stephanie Nadi Olson: I started my career in the ad industry on the type-A achievement path. After a few years I said, “This isn’t fulfilling.” I had recently become a mother, and that wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave for my children.

I thought about the work I did with refugees in Atlanta, and with people who had postpartum depression. It had always been a joy to support underserved, marginalized people. I quit my job and thought, I have to do work that resonates with me and capitalizes on my experiences in marketing.

So I started to support “corporate refugees” — all the people who had been overlooked and underestimated in our industry, and haven’t had access to opportunity and wealth in the way that they should.

Why lean into freelancers?
Diverse, talented people were leaving the industry because they didn’t feel welcome. I also saw the rise of project work and the demand from brands that partners be more transparent and embody diversity and inclusion values.

I gathered up people working independently who felt the industry wasn’t serving them, whether they are LGBTQ+, over 40 years old or don’t live in a major market. I wanted to help them gain the power, influence and wealth that they deserved.

What was the biggest challenge for you in starting a company?
It was comical how little I knew about running a business. It was quite literally one foot in front of the other. I knew how to make money, but I didn’t know the nuts and bolts. We were very fortunate that we had our first $500,000 project before we had a website, insurance or an LLC.

I had two babies at home. I spent an entire weekend dragging my kids around to set up a bank account. For me those were the hardest parts: How do I legitimize this business?

How did you balance starting a new business and a family at the same time?
I didn’t balance it. I was not a present mother for the first two years of We Are Rosie, and we’re only two and a half years old.

I didn’t go into this with rose-colored glasses. My husband knows I don’t do anything half-ass, and I’m going to dedicate every ounce of my attention and energy to get this off the ground. He was the primary caregiver for our children. He did doctor’s appointments, teacher meetings, everything. I couldn’t have done it if that hadn’t been the case.

How did you grow the network once it was off the ground?
It was very grassroots at the beginning. Probably the first 1,500 Rosies [freelancers] joined our community because I asked them directly to work for us. I started reaching out to people from my career who I respected and said, “I’m doing this thing, what do you think? Poke holes in it.” The support was incredible, and it just grew organically from there.

Did you take any funding?
I chose not to. I had no interest in begging VCs to support my vision. Venture capital is dominated by white cis men who can’t relate to creating opportunities for marginalized people. So we don’t have that safety net, but I get to call the shots. That has been a huge force in my ability to maintain my values for the business.

But there’s a networking deficit that comes from being part of an underrepresented group. If that wasn’t the case, it would be easier to scale.

Agencies still have abysmal diversity numbers. What are they continuing to get wrong?
I experienced pretty egregious behavior that prompted me to start this business. For me, a white-passing woman with economic stability, to feel like I didn’t have a choice but to leave, really got me thinking about people who didn’t carry the privilege I have.

People are recognizing that they have to go about business differently. What got us here is not going to get us there. Everyone is tired of placating responses.

How has COVID-19 impacted We Are Rosie’s business?
It feels strange to say, but COVID has helped us grow. As marketers emerge into this new world, they need a more agile solution. They are finally starting to think differently about the rigid ways they’ve done work in the past.

Pre-COVID, about 90% of Rosies were full-time, independent consultants. Now, about 20% have been impacted by furloughs or layoffs because of COVID. They’re raising their hands for project work, but are really looking for an FTE. Rosie Recruits has become a large portion of our revenue since the pandemic began.

This interview has been edited and condensed.